Coral reefs are special places. They can enchant, inspiring tourists and scientists to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles for just a few moments of underwater bliss. But reefs are also sites of death and decay, reminders of the damage humans continue to inflict on the environment. Few know these contradictions as well as biologist Peter F. Sale, author of Coral Reefs: Majestic Realms Under the Sea. Part memoir, part popular science, part call to action on climate change, the book makes a compelling case for why coral reefs deserve more attention. Sale’s argument is as simple as it is powerful: as coral reefs go, so goes the rest of the planet.
Sale grew up playing in tide pools along the Bermuda shore, and his prose frequently communicates a childlike sense of wonder. That’s not surprising, as coral reefs are indeed majestic. Their growth requires millions of years, and their continued existence depends on an improbable alignment of geology, biology, oceanography, and climate—“serendipity in deep time,” Sale calls it. More process than product, a thriving reef is less a static object to admire than a living being to encounter.
If you look closely at a coral reef (or any ecosystem for that matter) there is simply a lot to see. A single coral specimen that can fit into a five-gallon bucket can house more than a thousand individual polychaete worms of a hundred different species; gobies, a type of small fish that shares the burrows of alpheid shrimps, offering protection from predators in exchange for a comfortable home (complete with a roommate); and some fish larvae that swim so quickly they can travel up to thirty body lengths (sixty centimeters) in a single second. A coral reef is an exciting place to be.
Throughout Coral Reefs, Sale’s personal, familiar tone provides a welcome complement to his scientific rigor. Among the many highlights is his hilarious description of Pacific reef cleaning stations, which Sale cheekily compares to the shady Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars. In these “wretched hives of scum and villainy,” Machiavellian cleaning fish “tantalize client fishes with gentle tactile stimulation…and regularly cheat.” Other examples are more poignant. Sale recounts the long journeys made by reef fishes after their dispersal as larvae in the open ocean. Overcoming powerful ocean currents, they’re able to locate and successfully return to their home reefs over remarkably long distances. “I well remember when I first read [about it]” Sale tells us. “I sat there stunned.”
Sale is not a religious believer, but his vocabulary often gestures toward the transcendent. Phrases like “exuberant richness” and “sheer wondrousness” recur throughout the book. Writing rapturously, Sale goes on to describe coral reefs as “the Other,” “magical place[s]…of fantastic otherworldliness.” Might he perceive some kind of divine life operating in this corner of creation? We can’t know for sure, but the theological implications of Sale’s language are revelatory: for believer and non-believer alike, reefs are sacred spaces, where scientific certainty gives way to mystery and awe.